I’ve written about my love of tea before, but a couple of posts don’t show how central to my day to day existence tea actually is. I always have a selection of leaves and bags ready to suit every situation, every mood.
And Keemun, more than the wonderful Ippodo sencha, more even than my standard builders’ bag from Clipper, is the one I can’t do without. It’s a black leaf tea from Anhui province in China, where it was grown by a failed civil servant called Yu Quianchen in 1875, and is packed full of aromas and flavours.
It’s a distinctive, almost winey tea with bittersweet elements of the best dark chocolate, a light tannic bitterness and warm spicy sandalwood notes. There are hints of orange and just the merest edge of cloves, juniper and allspice – like a drop of mulled wine. All of which make it a wonderful drink to gently brew and relax with after a rich meal. Or even to cut a strong chocolate dessert.
There’s a whole ritual to making tea like this. And it’s something I lose myself in time and again. Like some superstitious sportsman who always ties their laces in a particular way, I find it helps me get into the zone before doing anything like writing a blog post, or just wind down from a busy day.
Moving through the motions of boiling the water, adding leaves to the pot and making the the tea. Those three or four minutes are time when I’m not thinking of anything else. Like a buffer for my mind against the thousands of clamouring thoughts.
This ritual is particularly important at the moment, when I am between houses, staying in spare rooms and in houses that aren’t my own. Which is why, when we packed up our kitchen for the last time I had to take a bag with me on my peripatetic wanderings around London.
With all this obsession with tea you’d think that I’d been raised on a builders’ brew instead milk and baby food. But I came to tea reletively late when I was in my teens (about the same time I really started to enjoy wine). And of all places it was in France.
During the summer holiday we would pile into my Dad’s Peugeot, four or five of us, and motor from Cornwall to the South of France over a couple of days. And we’d stay in a gite, visiting a network of newly retired teachers who all seemed to relocate from England to the Dordogne.
And it was with one of these that I finally tried what I had always considered a bitter brew. But they gave a finely prepared cup of black Darjeeling with a spoonful of brown sugar. The floral scent rising in the steam. I was hooked. And with the zeal of a convert I’ve chased down the best brews since.
Brewing a perfect Keemun
To really get the best of this you need to get your water to about 80oC before pouring. And this is where the ritual comes in. I boil a kettle of filtered water (the hard water of London leaves a most unattractive scum on top of the tea) and pour it straight from the kettle into a cold jug. I then pour the water from that jug into the tea pot.
Every time you decant the water in that way, from a bit of a height (five or six inches) it loses about 10oC. And you don’t burn the leaves which can bring an angry bitterness to your brew.
Leave it to brew for about four or five minutes, remove the leaves (you can use them again later) and pour out your tea. Then sit down, raise the cup to your nose, inhale and relax.
I got mine from Camellia World of Teas in London, but it should be available from any good tea shop.